Tuesday, March 22, 2011

its last thoughts tetter the furrows - the mystery of The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc

The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc.  The title, that got my attention.  Hard to parse.  Written by Charles Péguy, published, self-published, in 1910.

It’s a play, or maybe a poem.  It has been a play, much shortened, rearranged.  The translation, the only translation of the whole thing, is 200 pages long.  The centerpiece of the play is a French nun’s seventy page meditation on Mary’s perspective on her son Jesus, a Passion of Mary.

For the last three days she wept.
For the last three days, she wandered, she followed.
She followed the procession.
She followed the events.
She followed as you follow a funeral.
But it was a living man’s funeral.
A man who was still alive. (117)

Joan, Jeannette, is “thirteen and a half.”  She spends the entire play, a few moments aside, spinning wool, always working.  The story, so to speak, is Jeannette’s discovery of her sainthood, of her role as the deliverer of Catholic France from the godless English – “Do you know they feed their horses oats on the venerable altar?” (70).

The nun and Jeannette argue about sacrifice, about charity.  The nun tries to persuade Jeannette to accept suffering, to be loyal to the church.  Aspiring sainthood resembles heresy.

Jeannette is not dissuaded.  Rather, if I understand the poem correctly, the nun’s arguments backfire, actually convincing Joan to become a martyr for France.  “Can it be that so much suffering is lost?” asks Jeannette.  She will, like Christ, redeem France’s suffering.

I suspect I can pinpoint the exact moment when Jeannette enters her vocation.  But who knows.  The women do not debate so much as exchange monologues.  Entire pages could be best performed as chants, like a church liturgy.  Péguy’s poetics are irregular and repetitive, looping, strange. Strange, strange.

Oh, if in order to save from the eternal flame
The bodies of the dead who are damned and maddened by pain,
I must abandon my body to the eternal flame,
Lord, give my body to the eternal flame;
My body, my poor body, to that flame which will never be quenched.
My body, take my body for that flame.
My wretched body.
My body worth so little, counting for so little.
Of little weight.
My poor body of so little a price.
                      (A pause)          (83-4)

The most common stage directions are (A pause) and (A long pause).

Péguy was a socialist, an atheist, a Dreyfusard, who had somehow returned, by the time he wrote The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc, to Catholicism, although not, paradoxically, to the Church.  In 1914, forty-one years old, he enlisted in the French army as an officer and was killed almost immediately.

Geoffrey Hill’s poem “The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy” (1983) is, I would guess, read more – read more by readers of English – than Péguy himself.

The blaze of death goes out, the mind leaps
for its salvation, is at once extinct;
its last thoughts tetter the furrows, distinct
in dawn twilight, caught in the barbed loops. (stanza 8)

Hard to write about, this poem.  Hard to think about.

This little essais is indirectly related to my trip to Quebec City.

Excerpts and page numbers, from the Julian Green translation, Pantheon, 1950.


  1. The most common stage directions are (A pause) and (A long pause).

    Sounds like Péguy could have livened things up with Exeunt, pursued by a loom. Although that might have distracted from the message he wanted to convey.

  2. The version that has actually been staged (English premiere 1984, tr. Jeffrey Wainwright) rearranges the "action" and cuts the play to a third - a quarter? - of its length, but it still must have been incredibly slow. Who are we kidding?

    Tilda Swinton was Joan in 1985. Would have liked to have seen it.

    The short version is easy to recommend to anyone who is curious but trepidatious.

  3. I've only seen reviews for this staged within the last decade, usually with political overtones stressed. I would imagine for a 70-75 minute play a quarter of the full length sounds about right.

  4. I read Peguy because my main field of study is World War II literature (bear with me.) During the second World War, some collaborationists, like Drieu la Rochelle, used this piece to prove that Peguy was a sort of proto-Nazi sympathizer, with his talk of the Volk (le peuple), blood and soil and all of that. There was also a strong association between the collaborationists and Jeanne d'Arc during WWII, because a) she supported Church and State and b) she was an enemy of the English.

    In fact, Peguy was a socialist of sorts, supporting workers' rights and human brotherhood, and would likely have been quite appalled at this particular political use of his work. But that's the interesting thing about art and politics. The art becomes a sort of palimpsest for everyone else's ideas.

  5. Yeah, I did not get any "blood and soil" feel out of Péguy's nationalism. But as you have read, I have been thinking about Jeannette as some verison of a real person and trying to avoid saying to much about French literary Catholicism which is, as you know, a big subject of its own.

    It is not at all clear to me that Péguy's Joan is a great supporter of Church and State! That's the role of the nun, Madame Gervaise, who loses the argument. But that is, like you say, part of the fun of art - different ideas, right or wrong, can be teased out from the same work.

    The funny thing is that Joan of Arc could as easily be a symbol of the French Resistance. One of Brecht's plays (The Visions of Simone Machard) uses her that way.